Iran's leadership sent mixed signals Thursday on how it will respond to the world's incentives to give up its uranium enrichment. While the supreme leader vowed Iran would never back down on its nuclear program, the country's president and chief envoy to the U.N. nuclear watchdog said Iran was prepared to negotiate.
The Iranians spoke as American and European officials in Vienna urged the country to freeze enrichment and stop withholding information about its nuclear program. The chief U.S. delegate to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Gregory L. Schulte, warned that if Iran rejected the incentives, it could face "the weight of the Security Council."
But supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei dismissed such talk.
"The Islamic Republic of Iran will not succumb to these pressures," state television quoted Khamenei as saying.
Speaking to Iranian nuclear experts in Tehran, Khamenei said the development of nuclear technology was more important than oil extraction - the source of about 80 percent of Iran's foreign exchange.
"Let me tell you, the importance of achieving and using nuclear energy is higher than oil exploration for our country," Khamenei said.
The Big Five of the U.N. Security Council and Germany have offered Iran a package of incentives in return for a long-term moratorium on enrichment — a process that can produce fuel for nuclear power plants or material for atomic bombs. The package calls on Iran to suspend enrichment for the duration of any negotiations.
Iran has not responded formally so far, but its officials have insisted that enrichment is an inalienable right and that talks must be unconditional.
The country denies accusations by the United States and others that it is seeking to develop nuclear weapons, saying its program would only generate energy.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday that Iran was prepared to negotiate on the basis of the incentives.
Speaking after talks with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Shanghai for a regional summit, Putin said: "The Iranian side responded positively to the six-nation proposal for a way out of the crisis."
He added he hoped Iran would soon set a date for the start of talks.
Ehsan Jahandideh, a member of the Iranian president's delegation in Shanghai, confirmed that Ahmadinejad had offered to negotiate "to ease tensions."
In Vienna, the chief Iranian delegate to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Ali Ashgar Soltanieh, warned against the West against threatening Iran, saying "the carrot and stick has always been counterproductive."
But Soltanieh told reporters that Iran was "determined to ... find a negotiated solution."
He spoke after the Europeans and the United States had criticized Iran before the 35-nation board of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
"Cooperation with the agency has been reduced to almost nothing these last few months and ... numerous important questions remain to be resolved," said chief French delegate Francois-Xavier Deniau, who was speaking on behalf of France, Britain and Germany — the EU negotiators with Iran.
U.S. delegate Schulte agreed, saying: "Iran continues to withhold cooperation with the IAEA on almost every outstanding issue."
When Iran received the incentives last week, it said they contained "positive steps" but also ambiguities, which had to be clarified in further talks.
The package included some significant concessions by the United States aimed at enticing Tehran to freeze enrichment. The U.S. would provide Iran with peaceful nuclear technology, lift some sanctions and join direct negotiations with Tehran.
The package also pulls back from demands that Iran outright scrap its enrichment program as an initial condition for negotiations, seeking instead a suspension. However, it also contains the implicit threat of U.N. sanctions if Iran remains defiant.